Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Book of the dead

Nancy Carroll works her magic in The Year of Magical Thinking.

Beginning in 2003, the celebrated author Joan Didion lived through a year which was not merely tragic, but in its extremity put most tragedies to shame. While anxiously tending her only daughter Quintana, who was languishing in an induced coma, her husband (and writing partner) of some forty years, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed and died one night at the dinner table. Even as Didion absorbed that blow, Quintana recovered, only to be struck down by a seizure a few months later, and then again a few months after that - she would be dead, too, by the next spring. So Didion found herself not only in the throes of grief over the loss of a loved one, but simultaneously trying to save another loved one, in fact her only child - and slowly failing.

No wonder the author turned to what she would eventually call The Year of Magical Thinking, a period of emotional suspension during which she clung to an inner, superstitious world in which she felt if she could only master the hidden rules of destiny, she might reverse the horrors that had befallen her. Perhaps her husband might return to life if only she didn't throw out his shoes; perhaps her daughter might survive her latest seizure if only she didn't turn down the street where they used to live.

Her life became a secret amplification of the superstitious strategies we all use to allay anxiety, with our lucky hats and pennies, and our little rituals before big games and interviews. Only of course such strategies are foolish in the end, and utterly vain - which makes them, ironically enough, prime targets for a writer like Joan Didion.

For it was Didion (in a glossy magazine portrait, at left) who dismantled with devastating accuracy the neuroses beneath the American and (especially) Californian dreams in such classics as Play It As It Lays and The White Album; indeed, she made her name with a dry, disllusioned style (one wag dubbed it "Emily Dickinson by way of Ernest Hemingway") which deployed miniscule variations in rhythm to tease the reader from one cutting insight to the next. Her prose, savored in the drip-by-drip manner in which one often reads a novel - on the bus, or just before bed - lifted her memoir of that terrible year to the bestseller lists, and deservedly so; style brought to the level of regimen is a rare thing, and always to be celebrated.

But the incremental virtues of Didion's verbiage don't quite map to the requirements of theatre, I'm afraid, which generally involve the rapid evocation, and manipulation, of large emotional architectures; indeed, even Vanessa Redgrave had trouble floating the text (adapted by the author herself) on Broadway. Yes, of course the piece was praised - in London it was praised all over again; how could it not be? To rain on this funeral parade seems simply rude, and what's more, rude to a darling of the writing set - for Didion, who for years led a fashionably high life in a manner now impossible for journalists (which is essentially what she always was), has always held a special, sentimental place in her profession, as do all those whose commercial projects can plausibly be construed as art.

Nevertheless, the problems with The Year of Magical Thinking are quite obvious: the eloquently parched surface of the writing never reveals any new depths over its length, and not only do no real conflicts arise, but there is never any voice heard but the author's own, and even she herself doesn't really "develop." So there are no real characters, nor is there a real story. There is only a stance: the opening gambit - which is at first quite striking - is basically all you get till curtain: the strangely calm voice of a sojourner in Hell, who knows all too well the gap between her dry manner and the horrors she is describing is essentially all she's got to sell.

Which isn't to say that Nancy Carroll isn't utterly admirable in the role at the Lyric Stage (she could certainly give Vanessa Redgrave a run for her money); nor is it to say that she or her director, the thoughtful Eric C. Engel, have actually made a "mistake" per se in hewing so closely, like careful sailors, to the contours of this particular text. Carroll never attempts to "shape" Didion's writing, or push onto it any extraneous emotional climax. In fact, she almost never rises from her chair; her performance is essentially where naturalism shades into minimalism - she is utterly in service to Didion (she's even toting the book).

Still, that leaves her at the author's mercy, and Didion is simply not all that dramatic a writer (it's perhaps worth noting that of her many screenplays, only the first, The Panic in Needle Park, is in any way memorable). Indeed, as the piece progresses, it's hard not to think of Didion as a special case of what Simone de Beauvoir once called "the naïve vanity of suffering" - only in Didion's case, the vanity is hardly naïve, and is hidden within her own seeming attack on vanity (to be fair, somewhere Didion lets us know she knows that, too). If despite all this you still feel she is just incredibly valiant, I'm not going to argue with you - nor am I going to quibble with the opening twenty minutes of The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion describes the sudden death of her husband; having lived through a similar scene, I can attest that her reportage has never been sharper: this is exactly what it's like to have someone you love die before your eyes, and when she matter-of-factly tells the audience, "this will happen to you," she's absolutely right.

But as that year of tragedy, and subsequent magical thinking, goes on, less-magical thoughts begin to cross our minds which simply don't seem to cross Didion's. Such as: what, in the end, was actually the matter with poor Quintana? And why is the dying young woman's own grief given such short shrift (she's actually having an even worse year than her mother)? And what, precisely, is the point of the many long evocations of all this superstitious behavior? Like a stand-up who only knows one joke, Didion keeps delivering the same bad news over and over, to diminishing returns, while one can sense the real life of her drama is elsewhere.

Of course one can't criticize Didion personally for being locked in an emotional stasis for over a year; I'm sure her description of her state is entirely accurate. Still, perhaps this is one reason why the best plays are usually fictional. I will hazard, however, that I can't quite believe this is all of Didion's story. And how much more affecting The Year of Magical Thinking would be if it engaged with its own drama rather than merely commented on it - if Didion managed to conjure the luminous Quintana before us, or if she even, perhaps, perceived her own inability to grieve was actually sealing her off from whatever life she had left with her daughter? I read in another local review that "there wasn't a dry eye in the house" by the end of this piece - which, I hate to say, is categorically untrue. Indeed, no one anywhere near me seemed to shed a single tear. Of course Didion might disdain such display as cheap catharsis. But then again, catharsis is a genuine mode of theatre.

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